Local farmer Gray Martin wants area farmers to know that there is a good alternative to growing avocados besides wine grapes – dragon fruit. Martin has been experimenting with dragon fruit varieties for about 20 years. They require one-third the water that avocado trees do, and the same kind of temperatures.
“Wherever avocados will grow, the dragon fruit will grow,” Martin said.
While Temecula gets too hot and too cold for the plants, he has a dragon fruit farm in the hills west of Temecula and another one in Rainbow.
His background as a small farmer in Riverside was in citrus which was “gold at farmers markets”. However, he explained, crops like citrus started disappearing from California one at a time as imports were brought in.
“The only crop left was avocados. Prices were reasonable until drought hit,” Martin said, adding that with the water shortage, the writing was on the wall for avocado farmers.
He earned a degree in agronomy (plant science) from Cal Poly Pomona in 1984. Then, as a researcher in the botany department at UC Riverside, Martin hybridized avocados, creating new and better varieties, including the Gem and the Lamb-Hass.
Having grown up in Hawaii, he had a personal interest in tropical fruits and joined the California Rare Fruit Growers Association. In 1997, he learned about the dragon fruit from rare fruit grower Paul Thomson who had been experimenting with exotic fruits in Bonsall.
Martin said he fell in love with dragon fruit because it is a fresh product that can be a commercial crop for farmers. The fruit grows on an unusual looking plant which is a tropical succulent vine, a member of the cactus family.
Native to Mexico, the plant was taken to Central and South America before eventually transplanted to other places all over the world.
He said the first dragon fruit plants that Thomson grew were from Vietnamese immigrants who brought them to Orange County in the 1970s. This variety has fruit with white flesh. According to Martin, the French, over 100 years ago, took the plants to Vietnam where they were hybridized to produce white flesh as that color is prized by the Vietnamese.
Martin explained that there are several main species of dragon fruit. One is often referred to as Pitaya, or Pitahaya. Technically speaking, he said, it is different from dragon fruit which got its name from a Chinese translation.
He said the Vietnamese fruit is extremely beautiful and the plant well adapted to the Southern California climate, but it lacks taste as it has very low fruit sugar levels.
The red flesh species, on the other hand, come mostly from Central America and have much more flavor and sugar than their white counterpart, Martin said. Furthermore, in this red flesh group there exists two main species and they taste very different from each other and may have different culinary uses.
One of the two is also considered dragon fruit as it appears very much like the Vietnamese ‘white’ as a fruit and a plant, Martin said, but the flavor and sweetness is more like high-sugared common fruits of pear, kiwi, even mango.
He said, “The other red flesh fruit is mildly sweet, firm in texture, deep colored, almost beet like, and likely rich in super food constituents.”
Another unique feature of the dragon fruit is that it blooms at night. Martin said the big tubular flower is very similar to the common night blooming Cerius cactus flower, but most sweet red dragon fruit blooms require hand pollination to set the large small grapefruit size fruit.
As a plant breeder Martin has spent the last two decades perfecting a variety of cross-pollinated hybrids; there are 35 in his collection. “Although my varieties are still currently in the testing phase, they are mostly red-flesh, very sweet and do not require hand-pollination – making the crop much more viable commercially. Because the fruit is of high value and scarce, I have one buyer, Moonland Produce in Los Angeles, and we have partnered to expand our production.”
Martin sells his dragon fruit for $3 a pound at most and stores sell it for as much as $10 a pound. He said, “The red-flesh fruit is somewhat rare as production is very low. All my fruit ends up at Gelson’s (Market) beginning in three weeks. California lends itself to organic better than tropical growing regions so some growers are organic and sell to specialty stores. Imported white flesh fruit is a regular item in stores specializing in Asian cuisine.”
The nearest Gelson’s is in Carlsbad, at 7660 El Camino Real.
Martin grows his hybridized plants in a greenhouse in Rainbow before planting them either on his property across the street from his demonstration farm, or on his land west of Temecula.
The vines produce dragon fruit from mid-July through December with multiple harvests. Besides using less water, they also tolerate water high in chlorides (salt).
Anyone interested in trying their hand at growing dragon fruit can buy the plants at nurseries; in Rainbow, Matt’s Landscaping has a broad selection. The American Beauty is a good variety for home owners as it is “user-friendly”, meaning it doesn’t have many spines on it. (The ones with spines are called “pitaya”.)
The San Diego County Farm Bureau is holding the 2017 Pitahaya/Dragon Fruit Production Tour on Friday, Aug. 25, starting at its office at 1670 East Valley Parkway in Escondido.
The tour includes stops at pitahaya or dragon fruit farms in Escondido, Fallbrook, and Bonsall. The event also includes a pitahaya fruit and ice cream tasting, and a talk about “All Things Dragon Fruit” by Gray Martin, dragon fruit grower and breeder.
Topics to be discussed include variety selection, planting, trellis and growing systems (pots vs. soils, shade vs. full sun, etc.); pitahaya or dragon fruit irrigation and water quality issues; integrated pest management; as well as fertility management and fertilizer practices.
The Pitahaya/Dragon Fruit Festival & Field Day is Saturday, Aug. 26 at the South Coast Research & Extension Center, 7601 Irvine Boulevard, Irvine. For more information and to register, go to http://ucanr.edu/2017-pitahaya.